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Published: Friday, 7/11/2008

Michigan utilities shutoffs up sharply

BY LARRY P. VELLEQUETTE
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

Electric and gas utilities in southeast Michigan have reported sharp increases in the number of service shutoffs for nonpayment, a national trend that Ohio utilities say will migrate into the Buckeye state as the effects of a voluntary winter moratorium melt away.

The number of shutoffs in southeastern Michigan climbed dramatically in May - the latest month for which figures are available - compared to May 2007, according to the Michigan Public Service Commission.

Michigan Gas Utilities disconnected service to 880 customers in May, up from none a year earlier, a spokesman said.

The same month, Consumers Energy shut off 7,215 electricity customers' service for nonpayment, up from 1,407 a year earlier, and DTE Energy shut off service to 6,545 from 3,091.

Electric and gas utilities nationwide are reporting sharp increases in the number of customers losing their service because of delinquent bills.

A survey by the National Energy Assistance Directors Association in June found that 8 percent of households with incomes between $33,000 and $55,500 annually were disconnected from electricity service.

Delinquent utility customers in Ohio benefitted from a voluntary five-month morator-ium requested by the governor last winter after four people died in a home in West Toledo that had been disconnected that day by Toledo Edison. But shutoff notices from those overdue winter bills are starting to arrive now.

Through May, Columbia Gas of Ohio had reported disconnections of 34,277 customers, up from 33,484 for the five months a year earlier. But spokesman Chris Kozak said that, through June, disconnection notices have climbed 9 percent for the year from the first half of 2007.

"It's tough to know why someone doesn't pay their bills. Shutoffs are always a last resort," Mr. Kozak said.

"Let us know you're in a position that you're having trouble paying your bills; we can work with you."

Similarly, shutoff notices in the Toledo Edison service area were down sharply through May, with 788 this year compared with 1,921 last year. But the number is expected to rise this summer.

"Customers that are having trouble paying their bills have to call us and let us know what's going on, so that we can point them to places where help is available," said spokesman Mark Durbin.

Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors Association, said high gasoline prices are a main culprit behind increasing shutoff notices.

"In a lot of cases you could be spending an extra $100 a month for gasoline," he said. "For families that live from paycheck to paycheck, they just don't have any other resources available."

Contact Larry P. Vellequette at:

lvellequette@theblade.com

or 419-724-6091.



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